J. Carl Ganter: I’m J. Carl Ganter with Circle of Blue’s speaking of water. When fire swept through the town of Paradise, California, it was a tragic loss of life and property. Now as Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton reports, those faced with rebuilding homes and businesses are also faced with another grand challenge: How to restart the town’s imperiled water system.
Brett Walton: In early November, flames erupted in the canyons and bridges north of Paradise, California. Fanned by powerful winds, the flames move quickly and burned intensely. The town of 27,000 people was soon engulfed. The Campfire, as the disaster came to be called, was the most destructive fire in the state’s history. It didn’t wipe Paradise off the map, but it was close. The town is just a smudge of its former self. 90 to 95% of the structures in town burned. They weren’t just charged either. They were consumed, obliterated.
When I visited paradise in February, the scale of destruction was still all too evident. Homes, entire neighborhoods were reduced to ashes. Only the foundations and brick chimneys still standing. A shopping center in the middle of the town anchored by a Safeway grocery store was rubble.
One paradise residents said he remembered the town’s colors being green and blue. Green for the trees and blue for the sky. Those same colors graced the town seal. Today, the town’s colors are the brown and gray of burnt homes and the fluorescent orange and yellow of the safety best worn by cleanup crews.
A central tension for Paradise in the coming months is the health of the water system. As residents clean up, some will want to return home. How many? No one really knows. Maybe 20%, maybe 40% but some will. The fire, however, unleashed benzene and other volatile chemicals into the water system. The chemicals are not in the water coming from the treatment plant. They’re in the pipes beneath the town.
The Paradise Irrigation District is the utility that serves Paradise. It’s trying to isolate the contamination in the system, but turning water on to returning residents makes that process even harder.
Meanwhile, other residents are installing their own water tanks and treatment units and the district has no revenue to pay for upgrades. It’s relying on emergency aid and reserves. Kevin Phillips is the manager of Paradise Irrigation District. I spoke with him about the challenges of recovering from the fire.
All right. I am sitting with Kevin Phillips. He’s the district manager of Paradise Irrigation District. Paradise Irrigation District serves the Community of Paradise, which was burned in The Campfire last November. I’ve been going around town today talking with Kevin about some of the challenges that the water system is facing and bring service back.
Kevin, thanks for being here.
Kevin Phillips: No problem. Thanks for showing up.
Brett Walton: Let’s give people a high level view of what the challenge is in Paradise after The Campfire.
Kevin Phillips: Well, before The Campfire, Paradise Irrigation District served about 10,500 connections which served a population about 27,500 people. When The Campfire came through on November 8th, it burnt about 90% of the town. Meaning that it burns about 90% of the service connections in the town. When the fire came through, the system couldn’t keep up with the amount of water that was being released through broken service lines and the system actually depressurized. When the system depressurized, we believe that either contaminants were sucked back in through the vacuum that was created, or that through the vacuum it sucked in the hot air from the fire and melted service lines and plastic meters.
That created two issues. One was that our system had depressurized, therefore we had to go and shut down the system and knuckle down the water so that there was still fire flows inside of the town because the fire was still raging either inside or outside of the town. The fire department needed to get water. So either shut down the system.
And the second was that we knew that there was damage internally into the system, but we didn’t know to what extent. So we had to go through a step process to get the system back up and running, which meant, based on our topography, we’re a pressurized a gravity fed system and so we have multiple pressure zones. So we had to basically put the puzzle back together within the pressure zones to make sure we didn’t damage more infrastructure.
And that took us about three months to get water back, fully pressurized into the system. And then once we had the system pressurized, we were able to go back and test for contaminants in the system. And there’s only been one other district in California that had kind of gone through this situation and found contaminants in their system, but they did. It was a much smaller scale.
Brett Walton: And that other district was Santa Rosa?
Kevin Phillips: Santa Rosa, right. Santa Rosa went through this and they had about 10% of their district burn and they had still 90% remaining, where we had about 90% of our district burn and really even the 10% remaining was so haphazard that we couldn’t really isolate those areas away from the burned areas or the contaminants. So once we got the system back up and running, we then had to then start testing for these contaminants, which were found in Santa Rosa.
And the main one, the main indicator contaminant, was benzene. And so what we had to do was create an environment in the system, which meant we had to let water sit stagnant for at least 72 hours before we went back and tested for this VOC or this contaminant. And then take that contaminant for testing, which actually normally takes two weeks, but we were able to get them back in five days to get an idea if there was contaminants in the water.
And we did discover that there were these contaminants in the water. It’s not an every service line, but it’s in a enough haphazardly that we had to issue a, “Do not boil, do not drink” order for any customers that were still remaining in town. And that’s a pretty restrictive requirement on our water for the individuals that are still wanting to use it.
We put that on really early on knowing that there was this potential and we have blanketed the whole district with that order and we’re now going through the process of trying to figure out how to go back and test each one of these service lines and main lines to make sure that the contaminant is isolated and that it’s safe for other individuals who might be in that area to drink the water.
Brett Walton: So there’s really, to me, it seems like three parts to this. There’s the contamination problem. Trying to figure out where the contaminants are. There’s the physical rehabilitation system. If there are contaminants and the laterals from the main to the house, then that would have to be replaced. The mains themselves. If there’s contaminants they would have to be repaired. And then there’s the financial component because you have a water system, but you do not have water customers, right?
Kevin Phillips: Correct. Yeah. So we’re a 95% rate based water system. We have two surface water reservoirs that are still in great shape. We have a treatment plant that still is producing clean and healthy, safe drinking water into the system. So we still have a lot of components of the system that are still good. But based on that we’re a surface water district, 95% of our costs are fixed. Meaning that we have a lot of infrastructure needs and costs and we need people to maintain and to continue running the district.
And based on that we have lost 90% or 95% of our customers. We no longer have a revenue base to support the district.
Brett Walton: How do you run a water system without revenue basically?
Kevin Phillips: That’s a great question and we’re still trying to figure that out. We’ve set goals for ourselves to make it through certain time periods. And the first goal was to make it through two weeks into the fire and to figure out triage. Not only our system, but our employees. 30 of the 36 employees that we had lost their homes and then all five board members lost their homes. So there was a lot of personal angst and struggles that our employees were dealing with that we were trying to also be sensitive to, but also we were also dealing with a water system that has lost 90% of their customers too.
So there was a lot of loss and grieving and trying to understand what truly we were facing in the first two weeks. And then we set a goal to make it through to the first month and now our goal is to make it through six months.
And so we’re three and a half months into this and we’re trying to make short term decisions for long-term success. And some of that is looking on legislators, looking into federal programs, looking to try to get programs that were before rigid and did not bend to bend with us because every person we’ve talked to that we ask about, they say they don’t know what to do because no one’s ever gone through this before.
And so we’re looking to try to get through these short term windows, but trying to make short term decisions for long-term goals. And at the end of it we know that there’s going to be a new business model and there’s going to be a new look at what the district entails. But we need the financial support to get us to that point that we can make those business decisions that then can continue the district into the future through the rebuild.
Brett Walton: Right. So the future is the big question here and it’s very early days. The fire was three and a half months before today. When you look to the future, are their timelines, are you giving people an idea of when they might be able to get water back?
Kevin Phillips: Yeah. At this point we are still trying to understand the complexities of the contaminants. We are really close to coming to a understanding of how to isolate the contaminant and how to lift this, “Do not drink, do not boil.” Based on our system topography, we’re going to clear zones based on pressure zones. And so-
Brett Walton: I’ll stop you there. So people understand the zones and the layout of the system. It’s kind of like a cascade or a waterfall. It’s gravity fed. So you start at the top and you’re working your way methodically down … If you start from the bottom, then you risk-
Kevin Phillips: Recontaminating.
Brett Walton: Recontaminating the system.
Kevin Phillips: Correct.
The topography is, like Brett said, is a ridge and like a waterfall. The town was built on a ridge and so the ridge starts from a higher elevation and ends at the lower elevation. And so all the water flows from the top to the bottom. Based on that our treatment plant is at the top. And so we are clearing higher zones and isolating contaminants at the higher zones so that those higher zones don’t recontaminate the lower zones once those lower zones are cleared. And so right now we do not have a timeline. We know it’s going to be a long process and we know that some zones are going to get cleared quicker than others zones just based on the topography and of their location. And so we are getting a game plan together right now, but this is going to take years to get cleared.
And then even after we’re cleared for years, there’s going to be ongoing testing based on that there was a contaminant in there. To make sure the health and safety is protected of the public and that the confidence of the water system is still going forward with our customers drinking it.
Brett Walton: So a lot of people talked about unprecedented or never having seen a town go through this before from a fire. And so what lessons are you taking or that other people are trying to learn from what Paradise is doing?
Kevin Phillips: Yeah, we feel like we’re kind of blazing the trail. It’s kind of a bad analogy, but, for a district or a town that has this type of destruction and we know that this is a new time. But we also know that this is going to happen somewhere else eventually.
Kevin Phillips: And so we are learning a lot of lessons and we’re trying to figure out some mitigation portions of the system that maybe we could look back and say that if we had X, Y, and Z that maybe we could have saved a certain portion or not had this happen again.
Kevin Phillips: Those lessons are still being kind of vetted and learned. But we know that at the end of this we will be a training site for others that eventually might go through this and then we’ll have availability of documentation and lessons of how to maybe get through this. At this point, I think that we’re still learning a lot. I know that there’s … The complexities are so overwhelming that sometimes it’s hard to even know where to go. So we’re taking in outside help, outside resources, trying to get every expert we can find to come in and support the district so that we feel like we are getting the best information going forward and we’re not making mistakes as we move forward through this.
Brett Walton: And the future, for paradise right now, is pretty much unwritten. They are big uncertainties about how many people will come back and what repairs will need to be done. Not only to the water system, but the town in general, right?
Kevin Phillips: Correct. Yeah, the town was populated with a retirement base and also kind of a commuting base. It was a cheaper opportunity for housing up here for people that worked in Chico and then there was a large base of retirees. And so the town rebuild is very uncertain. We know that it takes a long time. We’ve seen it in past fires, how long it takes to rebuild neighborhoods that are ready to go. Where we have many challenges of topography and of planning and of … That the town has no sewer system.
There’s just a lot of challenges that this town is going to be facing in the next three to five years. And so what the town’s going to look like right now is truly unknown to all. But we also know from our standpoint that without a water system, the town will never rebuild. So we understand that that is a critical factor of the rebuild and that we want to make sure that whatever opportunity for rebuild is there, that we’re supporting it and that the water system is available for that.
Brett Walton: And do you have a sense of the mood of town residents? Many of whom are scattered across the state or across the country even. Do they, in your interactions, do they understand the length of time that is going to be involved with this? Or their patience? Angst? What’s the mood?
Kevin Phillips: I think that there’s quite a few people that have decided not to rebuild. They just don’t have the time in their life or the desire to come back to a place that not only created a lot of fears in their life but destroyed a lot of their memories. And so we’re going to get a lot of people that are not going to return. And my numbers that we’re hearing is that there, there’s probably going to be 20% that rebuild an 80% that don’t come back.
There’s maps out there that are scattered on the Internet that show where people are in the map and that’s all over the United States. From New York to Florida to Oregon to Idaho. And I think that at the beginning, I don’t know if they understood the length of time, but I do think it’s setting in now, of how long this is going to take and how long that it does take to rebuild a town from scratch. That the town’s not even at scratch yet. It’s still littered with debris everywhere and trucks and dead trees and equipment all through up and down the town.
So this is going to be a long, long process. And for people to come back up, it’s going to take a lot of patience and a lot of time and a lot of understanding that this is not going to happen tomorrow or the next day or the next year. That it’s going to be a long, long process.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton